Memento Mori

Hey, you there! Could I please have your attention for a moment? Yes, you, right there, the reader. No, don’t look over your shoulder I’m not talking to the person behind you. I’m not talking to the person who might have read this message before you, nor the person that might read it after you. I mean you specifically, I have a message for you that is going to come true. I will be blunt. Ready?

You are going to die.

There I said it. Now calm down, I’m not saying anything you didn’t already know, I’m just reminding you of something that you already know. You will die. It’s a fact. I will too, we all will. We don’t know how or when, but it is inevitable. It’s also something that we are supposed to pretend to forget apparently. At least these days, in Western culture you don’t hear a whole lot about mortality. Like it’s not a big deal. Well, it IS a big deal! Death. Everything that you know here, in this life. It will all end. This life is not a practice run, it’s not a dress rehearsal, this is it! That’s a freaking big deal! OK, I will try to calm down and not use exclamation marks at the end of every sentence, that’s a bad habit. Ahem!


Ok, everybody calm down. Let’s think this through. Before you sidle away from me, and my rant here, like I’m a bug-eyed, wild haired crazy person who is accosting you in the supermarket, let me defend myself and say that there is a long rich history of people who thought it very important to remind themselves and others, once in a while that we humans don’t get to live forever. Granted a lot of them were monks and philosophers, who tend to be a gloomy bunch of grumpy Gusses. But the awareness of one’s own mortality does not have to be morbid. I believe that it can be inspiring, uplifting, and remind you of your focus and purpose.


A Memento Mori is an object that is meant to remind you that someday you will die. It is neccessary because these days we tend to live as though that is not true, as though we can forget that. Talk of death is viewed as unpleasant and morbid. It is seen as rude to bring it up. I mantain that death is not morbid, it is natural, it is simply the state of things, and reminding yourself that you will one day die is no more weird and morbid than reminding yourself that you cannot fly. Indeed, if we often forgot that we can’t fly we would want to write that fact down on a card and keep it in our pocket, no?


Nowadays we live in a world that seems driven by commercialism and capitalism. The message is don’t worry about “the end”, chill out and drink a coke. If you feel worried or unsatisfied maybe you should buy something? We live in a culture that glorifies youth over all else, any talk of death is seen as morbid or taboo.

StillLifeWithASkull Philippe de Champaigne

Medieval philosophers would often keep a human skull on their desktop to remind them that they too would one day die. I think that if we have an awareness of our own mortality it can help us to focus on what really matters. When you begin each day knowing that it is a unique opportunity, that this day has never happened before in human history, and will never happen again than you take it more seriously. Do you think that in being aware of death for today you will be kinder or more selfish? Will you be more or less likely to reach for your goals and dreams, when you remember that this is a one shot deal? Do you think that a remembrance of mortality is likely to make you reach for a Coke or a Budweiser, a McRib Sandwich, or a new car, when you are planning how to spend your time? Is is it more likely to make you question what really matters? And to strive after things that are both less “substantial” but have more “substance” things like honor, truth, peace and happiness, a legacy?


I think that the answer is pretty obvious. That keeping in mind that life will end helps us to treat it as the rare and precious commodity that it is. Memento Mori is Latin for “remember that you will die.” A Memento Mori is an object that you keep around you to remind yourself of your own mortality. It is a symbol that represent death. Now look, I am not trying to inspire y’all to be Goth, you don’t need to rush out and get a bunch of skull tattoos. It can be subtle. Not all of us can be like the Medieval philosopher and keep a human skull on our desks. Actually the image that has been at the top of this blog (a photo I shot at a Dan Deacon concert of a plastic neon skull) is meant as a Memento Mori. But it doesn’t even have to be a skull. It can be anything that reminds you that life is fleeting, that existence is temporal. I use an hourglass, I keep it on my desk, and it reminds me that time spent does not come back. Your memento mori can be a drawing, a photograph, an object, a piece of jewelry, whatever works for you. Other things you might consider:

A moth ( symbols of the soul)

something green (a symbol of death in medieval culture)

something black

an hourglass

a fossil



A scarab

a statue, or bust of a famous deceased person

a snake

a painting or poster

an animal skull or skeleton

a crow, or an owl

a cross

a wheel ( a symbol of death and rebirth in Buddhism.)

A picture of a sunset

It can be a phrase that you write down and keep somewhere. It is said that Solomon had a ring on his finger that said “this too shall pass.” When he was sad it made him happy, and when he was happy it made him sad.

Be creative, anything that reminds you of mortality can work. Set it up somewhere that your glance will fall upon at least once a day. And whenever you notice it, let it remind yourself – this is it. Now, make it count!

4 Comments on “Memento Mori

  1. Pingback: My top 10 posts of all time | Anthony Alvarado

  2. Thanks a lot … sitting here and preparing a lesson for my paramedic class … the subject is “The Dying Patient” … I think they will like Your post … I LOVED IT!!!

    • Wow, thanks Maria! I’m honored to hear that! This essay is included in my book D.I.Y. Magic which was published by Penguin earlier this year, I think you might enjoy that too!

  3. This is a great article and absolutely love the images! I was just having a conversation with friend yesterday and she was talking about how death is still taboo in Western culture. I know I felt uncomfortable and yet it is something that I accept is part of life and as a friend said to me death is what makes life so special. Looking forward to reading your other articles, reflecting more on the one I have just read and possibly, maybe, definitely looking into your book DIY Magic – sounds inspiring! Best wishes, Abby

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